Those pesky pesticides

Having written, the other day, about growing your own food to avoid unwanted chemicals, I’ve been doing a little more thinking. A friend asked me whether washing vegetables in dilute vinegar would help reduce pesticide residues more than washing with water alone. My initial thought was that, even if this did work, it would only help with surface residues, not pesticides that the plant had absorbed. I did do a bit of reading around and I didn’t find an answer to the original question but I did come across an interesting piece from Cornell University, entitled Can you wash pesticides off your fruits and vegetables? They note that various heat treatment (e.g. pasteurisation, canning and frying) have been found to reduce pesticides, as have milling, brewing, baking, malting and wine-making, but that drying and dehydrating can increase pesticide levels. Their conclusion:

Washing your produce certainly removes pesticide residue from the outside, but there’s no clear data showing whether it reduces pesticide exposure compared to consuming organic fruits and vegetables.

So, it does seem that the safest option is to grow or buy fruit and vegetables that have not been exposed to pesticides in the first place. At this point, it’s worth noting that some pesticides are acceptable in organic systems, so buying something that is labelled ‘organic’ does not necessarily mean that it is pesticide-free.

With home-grown produce, you need not worry about pesticides if you know you have not applied any. This means that when it comes to preparation, cooking and storage, you can relax and do what you like.

Since my (pretty-much chemical-free) garden is now at the beginning of its most productive period, I’ve already started preserving some of the bounty. I’ve made mint sauce, I’ve frozen some of the raspberries I’ve picked and I have some oregano hanging up to dry in the limery. There’s a small bowl of tomatoes in the fridge ready for conversion into passata, which I freeze if it’s only a small quantity or bottle if I have large amounts.

I love all the potential at this time of year. I know that by the end of summer I will be sick of courgettes, but now as I watch the first fruits swell, I can hardly wait for my first harvest. How about you? Is there something you love to grow and eat?

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2017 Courgette #1

What’s in your dinner?

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potatoes

At this time of year I feel particularly lucky to have access to growing space. We don’t have a very big garden and we have chosen to prioritise food production, so that means we don’t have flower beds or a lawn, just space for fruit, vegetables, chickens and compost, with some paved sitting space that we share with lots of pots of plants. We used to have more space for outdoor sitting, but the limery took that over.

My reasons are partly because I love growing food – being connected to the seasons, eating food fresh from the garden and clocking up food metres not food miles. However, I also like knowing exactly what sort of chemicals go into my food. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publish a ‘dirty dozen’ each year – a list of foods with the highest levels of pesticide residues. Although these data are collected in the US, the list is of interest wherever we live in the world. In 2015, the list was as follows:

  1. Apples
  2. Peaches
  3. Nectarines
  4. Strawberries
  5. Grapes
  6. Celery
  7. Spinach
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry Tomatoes
  11. Snap Peas (Imported)
  12. Potatoes

Closely followed by Hot Peppers and Kale/Collard Greens.

From this list, we grow Peppers (hot and sweet), snap peas (we call them sugar peas or mange tout, I think), potatoes, kale and some apples. The bulk of our apples come from friends who do not use pesticides on their trees, and the other items on the list we eat rarely or not at all. Of course you can buy organic produce and avoid issues with pesticides (and we often do), but growing your own delivers so many extra benefits.

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red salad bowl lettuce growing in a container

One of my particular favourite crops is salad leaves. I don’t think that there’s any substitute for freshly picked leaves. By growing your own, you can avoid packaging, the threat of salmonella, exploitation of workers and the use of chlorinated water for washing them – all issues that have been identified as being linked to bagged leaves sold in supermarkets (details here). And you don’t even need a garden – you can plant cut-and-come-again varieties of lettuce, along with oriental greens in pots, in window boxes, or in trays on your windowsill. Let the leaves grow up and then harvest them by trimming with scissors and allow them to grow back. If you plant a few trays in succession, you can supply yourself with a regular harvest for several months. And honestly, the taste just doesn’t compare with leaves that have been encased in plastic for a couple of weeks in a modified atmosphere so they don’t go off.

Herbs are another great windowsill crop and it’s lovely to pick your own fresh seasonings, even if you don’t have space to grow anything else.

So, however small your space, I encourage you to plant something to eat – you won’t regret it!

The Knicker Report

I know I said I wouldn’t show you my knickers again, but I have been testing out the Scrundlewear pattern and I can now give you a preliminary report…

There are two styles available – shorts and briefs and I have made both. The waist and leg bands must be made from fabric with some stretch, so I bought some organic cotton-lycra jersey in amusing patterns to play around with:

Then I made versions of both styles entirely out of the new fabric and also with fabric from old t-shirts for the bits that don’t need so much elasticity, resulting in four fabric/style combinations in total:

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Piles of pants

And then I wore each pair for a full day to road-test them!

So, here are my thoughts:

  • The pattern just gives dimensions for the waist and leg bands, but it’s easier if you make an actual paper pattern piece to work with – it just makes life easier and you don’t have to keep using a tape measure.
  • The original pattern is designed to print out on A4 paper which then has to be stuck together. I used these print-outs to create a template and transferred the pieces onto a single large piece of paper so there were no joins to act as points of weakness.
  • When it came to sewing, my machine struggled with the 100% cotton t-shirt fabric. I tried a variety of needles (normal and ballpoint), but still suffered from problems with tension and missed stitches. In contrast, once I’d got the tension/needle combination right, the new cotton-lycra jersey was easy to sew.

Missed stitches reduce stretchiness and mean weak joins, so minimising them is important. I need to do more trials with my machine to sort this out.

  • Once it came to wearing them, I found the most comfortable version, generally, to be the shorts with the reused t-shirt fabric (those are the ones with the black and white bands in the picture). However, it was a close-run thing and I have to confess that although they were good, none of them were perfect. It will be interesting to see how washing affects the fit and comfort.
  • In all cases, I thought that the leg bands were a little too wide, so I’m going to make these a bit narrower next time and see how that works out. The waists were fine.
  • They are quite substantial, so I imagine that if you lived somewhere warm you might like to seek out a finer jersey than I used, and perhaps use lingerie elastic rather than the fabric for the waist/leg bands (there is an option for this in the pattern).
  • I quite enjoyed making them and it does get easier with practice.
  • Out of interest, I’m going to dismantle some comfortable knickers that I have been wearing for years and see how the shape compares to this pattern… I will then make some modifications and have another go.

So, there you are. My conclusions? Give it a go – if you’ve got a sewing machine that can cope, I’m sure you can be successful if you are prepared to experiment. This way you can have ethical, organic pants and save a lot of money.

Shifting my focus

Self-sufficiency is something we have never aspired to. I like olive oil and lemons and west Wales is certainly not the place where these can be produced. However, I do love being able to eat food that we have grown or collected ourselves. Before Mr Snail departed for his latest week in the big city, we were reflecting on what we had eaten this weekend. The list of food that we were responsible for in our diet was quite pleasing:

  • Homemade chocolate ice cream topped with homemade orange curd

    Homemade chocolate ice cream topped with homemade orange curd

    Eggs – made into waffles (for breakfast this morning), orange curd, ice cream and simply fried for lunch yesterday

  • Blackberries picked from the hedgerows last autumn (frozen)
  • Apples picked from a friend’s tree (bottled)
  • Home-grown redcurrants (frozen)
  • Home-grown parsnips (fresh)
  • Home-grown squash (roasted and then frozen)
  • Whey left over from cheese-making and used in the waffles

Most of the other things we ate this weekend were produced locally or were organic imported items (olive oil, tea, coffee and sugar) and I don’t think anything was bought from a major supermarket chain.

Earlier in the week I started writing a blog post about exploitation and just found it all too depressing. When I told my friend Linda about this, she suggested that the answer is to try to keep our focus local – support local producers and growers, buy from local businesses (especially if they have an ethical outlook). That way you can do lots of good and not find yourself paralysed by how awful some aspects of our modern life are with respect to human rights and the planet. She’s right; by keeping my focus local I can remain positive… and have a delicious diet too!

 

 

Sometimes I even inspire myself!

I spent last Sunday afternoon making a cotton shopping bag so that I could photograph the steps involved and post the instructions here on my blog. I wasn’t in desperate need of another bag (although they always come in useful), but I really wanted to show how simple they are to make. In order to do this, I had to get my sewing machine out and set it up . Once it was there and ready to use I began thinking that it would be a shame to put it away without giving it a bit of a work out… and anyway, I was suddenly feeling enthusiastic about sewing again.

I have recently noticed that my night attire is starting to fall to bits… this may be linked to trips out to deal with chickens early in the morning – wellies, a nighty and a shawl, what could be more glamorous? Or to the fact that I haven’t bought any new night clothes for quite a lot of years. So, I thought, what better use to put my sewing machine to? Now don’t get over-excited about negliges or baby doll pyjamas, I was thinking practical and warm!

All set to go - fair trade organic cotton and two patterns

All set to go – fair trade organic cotton and two patterns

I love the fact, these days, that I can have an idea like this and immediately search for patterns and fabric without moving from my chair. I am not a big fan of trailing round the shops, I much prefer sitting at home with a cup of tea and a dog at my feet. In addition, we live in quite a rural area, so a trip to any place that can provide a good selection of shops for fabric and sewing patterns would require a whole day out and lots of fuel. Plus, the internet gives me so much choice… something I really wantedin this case because I decided to seek out ethical cotton (preferably organic as I want to minimise the number of potentially toxic chemicals next to my skin), and I don’t think Swansea is well stocked with fair trade fabric shops.

But the internet is a wonderful place. I managed to find a couple of sewing patterns that appealed to me from a shop that allowed me to view the details of the materials I would need, then to search for suitable fabric. After a bit of hunting around I came across Fair Trade Fabric, who

source cotton fabrics that help to improve the lives of poor and marginalised producers, from those who grow the cotton, to those who dye and weave it. The cotton is grown organically and produced to minimise the impact on the local environment so both people and planet are protected

What a great find! Lots of lovely cottons sold by the metre or in fat quarters. I chose two lovely designs to try out and placed an order. And by the magic of the Royal Mail, two days ago* both patterns and fabric arrived and so I’m all set to get going… I just need to stop dogs trampling across the paper patterns whilst I’m cutting out. Oh, and work out whether there is some sort of ethical interfacing…

-oOo-

* I got distracted yesterday because of my lovely shawl pin arriving, so this post got bumped by a day!!

Support your local farmers

Living in rural west Wales, we have an abundance of local farmers and other food-producers around us. This means that there’s a farm shop nearer than a big supermarket, as well as local producers who sell direct.

All produce comes from the farm

All produce comes from the farm

In order to make a significant dent in the great courgette mountain (there’s currently nearly 3kg of them in the fridge and more growing in the garden even as I write) I needed some extra ingredients. For example, tomatoes and onions are required for a great soup-making session (lots of green tomatoes on my plants, but only 100g of red ones awaiting use).

Blaencamel.shop

Blaencamel shop

So today I visited one of our local organic farms: Blaencamel. At the farm they have a shop. Well, I say shop, but they are too busy to serve customers, so it’s actually a shed with produce displayed inside, a notebook for you to record your purchases and a cash box, in which to leave your payment. It seems to work – I suppose there my be people who take things without paying, but I think that’s rare, and the cash box sometimes has an IOU in from a customer who didn’t have enough cash or the right change.

Poytunnels protect some of the crops

Poytunnels protect some of the crops

Everything they sell is from the farm, so it has only travelled a few metres in most cases. The shop is adjacent to their polytunnels and fields full of crops, so you can see exactly how your food is being produced and there is frequently someone around to talk to if you want to ask questions. In addition, you can see their big mounds of composting material – a truly organic approach. I always enjoy buying direct, and it’s particularly satisfying to be supporting the local economy as well as the environment.

Material awaiting composting

Material awaiting composting

Garden dinner

I love the time in the year when it is possible to eat a significant proportion of our food from out of the garden. We are not quite there yet this year, but last night we did start with spring onions, potatoes and sage from the garden (plus an egg):

Ingredients for dinner

Ingredients for dinner

and ended up with Glamorgan sausages, boiled new potatoes (variety Colleen) and lettuce for our dinner:

Ready to eat

Ready to eat

Not quite  a garden dinner, as the lettuce came from a local farm and the Glamorgan sausages were made with breadcrumbs from a homemade loaf (organic white flour from Shipton Mill; wholemeal from Felin Ganol) plus Snowdonia Black Bomber Cheese and freshly ground back pepper, but with the sage and onions and bound together with the egg. Not entirely home-grown, but very satisfying that almost everything was fairly local.

I am having a slight problem, however, at breakfast time. Despite the strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and red currants being covered in fruit, none of it is ripe yet. Thank goodness for rhubarb to keep me going in this rather lean period!

Soil – getting to the root of things

Unless you are practicing an unconventional system of cultivation like hydroponics (see this great blog if you are interested in doing so) then soil is the foundation of everything you grow.

Gardeners tend to value their soil – they see what they are taking out in terms of crops and try to put something back – often by adding compost, soil improvers or fertilizers. My favourite addition to the soil is compost because it doesn’t cost me anything – I am converting what others would regard as waste (from the kitchen, garden or chickens) into a useful resource. I don’t tend to use commercial fertilizers or feeds, relying on compost, woody material from the willow hedge and other prunings, and worm wee. That’s not to say that I won’t use commercial fertilizers, I’m just too mean to buy them! I received a free gift of some organic liquid tomato feed earlier in the year and so I have recently been using this on potted crops – although it does make the greenhouse smell like someone has been storing fish in there for a week!

Unlike gardeners, many large-scale agricultural enterprises don’t use their ‘waste’ outputs as a resource, choosing instead to treat organic matter as rubbish and buy in fertility in the form of fertilisers derived from the petrochemical industry. In a recent post, Yambean highlighted the shocking waste when Spanish farmers dumped cucumbers in protest at being paid so little for them by the supermarkets. I asked her about this and commented that they would, surely, have been better composting them and returning them to the soil, but she tells me that composting is unheard of in that part of southern Spain and the soil is, as a result, completely impoverished. It’s shocking to me.

Soil is a complex system consisting of a mineral component, organic matter in various states of decomposition (from freshly fallen leaves and recently deceased animals to humus and root exudates) and living organisms (bacteria, fungi, worms, insects, other invertebrates, plant roots etc). It is common sense that we need to nurture such systems if we wish to make use of them. Unless we replenish the soil, it will not continue to be productive. This was the basis of the organic movement in the UK, you know? Ever wondered why the Soil Association (one of the regulators of organic produce here) is called the Soil Association? Well, it was founded in 1946, partly because of concerns about “the loss of soil through erosion and depletion”. In 1967, the association stated that “The use of, or abstinence from, any particular practice should be judged by its effect on the well-being of the micro-organic life of the soil, on which the health of the consumer ultimately depends.” So, you can see that their name really does reflect an acknowledgement of the key importance of the soil.

In large-scale systems, particularly where it is common to have periods when the soil has no vegetation cover, erosion is common. As the Soil Association noted in 1946, soil is not simply lost as a result of nutrients being extracted because we grow crops in it, erosion is also a problem. If you live beside the sea (as I do) you cannot help but notice the brown water around river mouths after heavy rain… this is the soil that was previously supporting plants. It does get replenished naturally – rocks weather and add to the mineral component, organisms die, excrete and shed parts of their bodies and add to the organic matter – but bare land is subject to high levels of erosion that can take a significant time to be replaced. Thus we lose substrate, nutrients and water-holding capacity because we chose to leave soil bare – a simple ‘green manure’ such as clover could reduce the erosion and enhance fertility (clover fixes nitrogen).

If we do not care for our soil is it any wonder that there is an increasing need to add to it from external sources and rely on non-renewable resources? Many people, when thinking of organic growing, focus on the absence of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertiliser, but I’d like to suggest that one of the most important reasons to support organic production is because its practitioners care for the soil and are, thus, ensuring that it is available for future generations to use too. In my garden, I would like to think that I will leave the soil in a better condition than when I found it… not just preservation, but enhancement.

The ethics of knitting yarns

Right at the beginning of this blog I said that it was intended to be an account of my own small steps towards a sustainability… perhaps I should have said a more sustainable lifestyle. Many of my musings have been about my own food production… vegetables, eggs, fruit… slugs as chicken food, but I’m also interested in the other aspects of my life – clothing, entertainment, my home and earning a living. My approach with the latter is to practice ‘poly-employment’ – not putting all my eggs in one basket, but having several income sources. At present I have two main ways that I earn a living – scientific editing and teaching adults (I teach ecology, conservation, biological survey and permaculture) – but I want another string to my bow.

With this in mind I am in the process of setting up a small business to make and sell teaching aids for the subjects that I run courses on. Over the years I have developed lots of tools to use to help me when I’m teaching – games, props, aides-memoirs, simulations and so on. I take an accelerated learning approach, and a variety of was of delivering learning is very important (different people learn in different ways and my aim is to cater for all). The knitted snails (in all their glory at the top of my blog page) are examples of a teaching tool – I use them for a story-telling exercise to demonstrate that small steps can take you a long way in either a positive or a negative direction. I have used them a few times, once with a group of trainee and experienced permaculture teachers who gave me very good feedback and, indeed, requested their own snails.

So I set to knitting snails… I know how to do it and you would think that there would be few ethical dilemmas associated with snail-knitting. You would be wrong! The dilemma comes with the materials used. There are two main components – yarn and stuffing. I’ll start with the latter.

The most common soft toy filling is polyester wadding – it’s lightweight and washable. I had a little of this hanging around the house and so it was the obvious choice for the first snails that I knitted. But when it was used up I was reluctant to buy more… it’s a petroleum-based product and, as such, not exactly sustainable. So what else to use? I considered wool or silk, but I expect that some of my customers will be vegan and, therefore, not want to buy any animal products. Which meant I was looking for a plant fibre. At this point I realised that the toys we made as children were stuffed with kapok and, whilst not washable like polyester, it is widely available and has a proven track record. My snails only need to be surface washable, so kapok it is… I even managed to find someone selling organic kapok.

But my problems were not over… there is a much wider choice of yarn than stuffing and each fibre has different qualities. I need a slightly stretchy yarn for the snails. The originals were made from oddments that I had lying around – the dark purple is pure wool and the lilac is a wool-silk mix. These are great to knit with, but not suitable for vegan customers. I am trying to use up lots of yarn oddments that I have here at home and I suppose that this is a sound approach because I’m turning a waste product into a useful resource, but in the long-term it’s not sustainable because I do not have an unlimited amount of left-over yarn and, anyway, much of it is sheep’s wool. I wanted to make a start on the knitting, so the first non-animal yarn available to me was acrylic – this is readily available and it is cheap. But, like polyester, this is a product of the petrochemical industry. So, although I did make some snails from acrylic yarn, this is not my ideal raw material.

So, I hit the internet…

I started off by searching for recycled yarn. The most readily available seems to be recycled silk. There are several problems with this for me. First, it’s not vegan; second, it’s not stretchy; third, its gauge varies, which is not ideal for the snails; and finally it’s quite expensive. There’s some recycled cotton yarn available, but it’s generally combined with acrylic.

Cotton, itself seems like a good choice except for its lack of stretch. However, conventionally produced cotton relies on high applications of pesticides and is water-hungry. Indeed, one source I found states that “2.5% of all farmland worldwide is used to grow cotton, yet 10% of all chemical pesticides and 22% of insecticides are sprayed on cotton” – astonishing figures. New organic cotton is available and there are yarn manufacturers that help support small producers. I decided that I would give some of this a try even though I don’t think it is really the ideal yarn for my projects… and, of course, there are ‘yarn miles’ associated with it.

OK, so I searched for eco-yarns and environmentally friendly yarns and came up with a whole list. There are some great manufacturers who support small producers across the world, but many of these make use of fibres from animals – sheep and alpacas, in particular. I am happy to use such yarn and I intend to explore the qualities of the different ‘wools’, but I still need to find something that will satisfy my vegan customers. I know that twine or linen can be made out of flax, hemp and nettle fibres, but they have little stretch in them and after some consideration I have had to dismiss them. However, I also know that other plants are being used to make yarn – bamboo seems to be appearing frequently in eco-clothing ranges at the moment. As I searched the internet, I started to come across yarn from some unexpected sources – maize, for example, and soya. And most bizarre of all, milk – yes milk!

So, my quest began to discover how such yarns are produced. One great source was a blog post on milk fibre, that suggests that its production relies on some unpleasant chemicals and that you need a huge amount of milk to make a small amount of yarn.

Typing ‘how is bamboo yarn made?’ into Google returned about 6 million results, so I thought I’d start with the first one… I wasn’t filled with confidence when it started ‘Bamboo yarn is derived from the bamboo tree…’ As a botanist, I can assure you that bamboo is a grass – a great big grass, but nevertheless a grass not a tree. I persisted… but all I discovered is that the process involves grinding up the plant and treating with water and ‘chemicals’. A less than enlightening article. However, a bit more searching and I discovered that all fabrics made out of reconstituted plant fibres are actually forms of rayon… now, I’ve heard of that! Rayon fibres are made from cellulose that can come from all sorts of plants, but the description that I found of its production suggests that it involves the use of caustic soda and carbon disulphide, and “results in a great deal of environmental pollution”. Sigh. So, is bamboo yarn, for example, eco-friendly? The general conclusion seems to be that it’s not entirely, but that there are some positives – bamboo grows well without the use of pesticides, grows rapidly and regrows when it has been cut (like your lawn, if you have one). And modern manufacturing processes seek to minimise the loss of chemicals to the environment, so pollution should be less than it used to be… perhaps eventually it will be produced in a completely environmentally friendly way, but not yet.

So, are there any truly environmentally friendly yarns? My inclination, for my own use, is to rely on British wool: sheep need to be shorn for welfare reasons and their wool can be processed and dyed using relatively natural products. In future I will knit my socks out of wool from Blue-faced Leicester sheep if possible. But for my vegan customers, I don’t have an ideal answer. This morning a package of different yarns arrived: bamboo, soya and cotton for me to try out… none of them have the give I really want in a yarn, but all of them are soft and may be wonderful to knit with. So, needles at the ready to produce so  eco(ish) snails.

… oh, and I’m knitting worms too!

Compost magic

Yesterday afternoon the telephone rang as I was coming in from the garden to retrieve the sprouting seed potatoes. Reluctantly I answered, preparing to hang up on yet another person telling me that my computer has a virus (with one? they can never tell me), but it was, in fact, someone genuine. On explaining that Mr Snail-of-happiness was outside emptying two of the compost bins, I received the response ‘Oh, dear’. Now, compost is one of Mr S-o-h’s favourite things about the garden (along with eating the produce) so I felt obliged to explain to the caller the wonders of compost… in fact I found myself becoming quite evangelical about the subject; ironic since the caller is a priest!

So, I feel moved to announce to the world that I think compost is MAGIC… waste goes in, a lovely growing medium comes out. The joy of knowing that vegetable peelings, teabags (unbleached), cotton rags, willow and paper shreddings, leaves, chicken poo and more all become something really useful for very little effort. I’m low-intervention with my compost and we don’t produce enough to put in to have a really fast, hot compost heap, but I’m prepared to wait and it really is worth it. So, some of those sprouted potatoes are now growing in bags, helped along by stuff that other people just throw out and there’s a lovely layer over the ‘squash bed’, plus two empty bins just waiting to be filled up again.

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